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CCAD Students Accept Challenge Of Designing A Better Surgical Gown

Clare Roth
CCAD students Marshell Stokes and Elysse Applewhite created a gown that wouldn't fall off surgeons.

Ann Jarrell is a nurse at Mt. Carmel New Albany, but at 6 p.m. on a Monday night, she finds herself back in a college classroom at the Columbus College of Art and Design.

“Actually, my daughter is a student here,” she says.

Despite the familial connection, she’s not there as a parent, but rather as a sort of lab rat. Jarrell’s daughter Hannah a junior taking a class dedicated to re-inventing surgical gowns for Cardinal Health.

“They asked her to do some construction on it, and they asked her if she knew anyone in health care and here I am," she laughs. "Giving my opinion.”

Hannah’s a fashion major, so focusing on things like sterility and universal sizing is new to her.

“We mostly design for like aesthetic and looks and trends and colors and seasons, and this time, it’s like, an all season thing, it’s the same color—blue—so I really had to get out of the mindset of doing stuff for aesthetic, and do it for function,” Hannah says.

Her mom, and other professionals in the health field, mill about the cluttered classroom. It’s a far cry from the order of an operating room, but they find a way to simulate one.

“We ended up playing a game of operation to see how it might feel in the real world," Jarrell says. "So we were just trying to see how we could move around in them, and then give our opinion."

And the opinions abound.

Credit Clare Roth / WOSU
CCAD students have a number of criteria they need to meet in order to design a better surgical gown.

“Well some of them are kind of stiff," Jarrell says. "Some of them didn’t hold well at the neck, so they could potentially fall off of staff and land on a patient. Some of them the sleeves weren’t long enough.”

That was not the problem with Marshell Stokes’s design. She and teammate Elyse Applewhite created a gown with extended sleeves with thumbholes to prevent the sleeves from riding up, like the shirts some runners wear.

“The feedback we received tonight had a lot to do with the gown-glove interaction, so the sleeve that we created, surprisingly, it did not go over well," Stokes says. "But we’re taking that feedback to adjust the design."

That feedback is critical, as medical restrictions and details could escape a design student.

“A lot of the creativity that we come up with, we realize automatically doesn’t fit within the scope of what it takes to have a successful surgical gown,” Stokes says.

That includes things like regulating temperature through possibly hours of surgery, and guaranteeing doctors and nurses aren’t exposed to any biological contaminants.

Surgical dress has been more the less the same since the 1970s, but instructor Matthew Mohr says that’s no reason to keep the status quo.

“Unless they’re absolutely perfect, there’s room for improvement," Mohr says. "And if we can improve that experience, if we can improve the feeling that a surgeon has after working in them for four hours, then we are essentially improving the situation and improving outcomes.”

That weighs heavily on students' minds as they approach the assignment.

“Putting yourself in the shoes of the surgeon and putting yourself in the operating room, and truly understanding and having that empathy," Elyse Applewhite says. "And knowing that this is what people are wearing to save people’s lives. So it’s a big thing. And we’re grateful.”

A representative from Cardinal Health says if the students’ final recommendations are cost-effective, meet medical requirements, and improve on the heating, sizing and fit issues, they’ll make the changes. The students only have a few more weeks of class to finish, but Jarrell has faith.

“I can see there’s just a couple bumps in the road they’re working on," she says. "They’ll get there.”

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.